An effort to institute a ban on single-use plastic bags for retail checkout purposes in Cranston has taken a step forward.
On a 6-0 vote, the City Council’s Ordinance Committee on March 14 approved sending an amended version of the “Plastic Bag Reduction” ordinance to the full council.
The sole change to the measure, made after debate among council members, relates to the date on which it would take effect. The original language called for the new rules to become effective Jan. 1, 2020, but Ward 5 Councilman Chris Paplauskas – one of the original co-sponsors along with Ward 3 Councilman John Donegan – made a successful amendment to delay that date to July 1, 2020.
Ward 2 Councilman Paul McAuley initially proposed adding an exemption to the ordinance for “any business establishment which prepared food/takeout.” His motion drew a second from Ward 4 Councilman Edward Brady. It was later withdrawn and altered to provide an exemption specifically for restaurants.
Donegan – who does not sit on the committee but took part in the discussion – questioned whether the exemption in the initial amendment would have created an unwanted loophole for grocery stores that offer prepared foods.
Assistant City Solicitor John Verdecchia expressed reservations about both of the exemption-related amendments. He said using general wording such as “restaurants” or “prepared food/takeout” risked creating an exemption so broad that it would “almost swallow the rule” and opening a “Pandora’s box.” He said any exemption should be more specific and provide the council’s reasoning.
McAuley later withdrew the amendment based on those concerns.
Brady – who is part of a group that owns The Thirsty Beaver locations in Cranston and Smithfield, Milk Money in Providence and the Pink Pig in Jamestown – said some establishments order bags and other branded items “by the millions” to get the best price and thus have an extensive existing inventory.
He expressed support for the intent of the ordinance, but asked that in addition to an exemption for restaurants, the implementation date for the bag ban be delayed by one year.
“If we could exclude restaurants [through the exemptions], this could be potentially something that I could support. But the restaurant industry as a whole feels that they're being targeted,” he said.
Brady’s concerns – and his stated intent to offer amendments – led Donegan to suggest delaying the effective date of the ordinance. He also noted that other cities and towns have included “hardship variances” in their own bag bans to provide relief for businesses in specific instances, and presented doing so in Cranston as an option.
“As the only business owner on the council, your input is crucial…As one of the council members that co-introduced this, obviously I would love everyone’s support, and particularly yours,” Donegan told Brady.
Paplauskas then offered the successful amendment to delay implementation until July 1, 2020. Brady seconded the amendment, and it was also approved on a 6-0 vote.
“That should provide enough time for everybody to get on board,” Paplauskas said of the extended timeframe.
Brady did say he would continue to evaluate the bag ban proposal ahead of the council’s next full meeting, which is scheduled for March 25.
“This is one of the most difficult things I’ve dealt with since I’ve been on the council … I still have reservations,” he said.
In addition to Brady, McAuley and Paplauskas, Citywide Councilman Ken Hopkins, Ward 1 Councilwoman Lammis Vargas and Ward 6 Councilman Michael Favicchio – who serves as chairman – voted in favor of advancing the bag ban.
The seventh member of the Ordinance Committee, Council President Michael Farina, abstained from the discussion. He said his rationale for doing so is that his employer, CVS Health, is among the “biggest users of plastic bags in the country.” He left his seat and joined the audience while the bag ban was debated.
“I think the environment is a great thing, and less plastic is probably a good thing,” he said before doing so.
Daniel Parrillo, director of administration for Mayor Allan Fung, did not directly state whether the mayor would veto the bag ban ordinance if it were to reach his desk. He did, however, say the administration favors waiting for the state to act on the issue.
“We wholeheartedly support the reduction of plastic bags. However, right now the administration agrees … that we should allow the state legislation to decide what direction this goes in,” he said. “We waited for the state on food trucks, we waited for the state on marijuana. I don’t see any reason why we should wait for the state to set a path on plastic bags as well.”
The possibility of the General Assembly acting on one of the plastic-reduction proposals that have been introduced during its current session played a significant role in the Ordinance Committee’s discussion.
One bill, sponsored by Senate President Dominick Ruggerio (D-Dist. 4, Providence, North Providence), would prohibit thin plastic bags such as those used in supermarkets and allow businesses to charge 5 cents for paper bags. It would also supersede existing bag bans in place on the municipal level.
Another statewide bag-ban proposal, sponsored by state Sen. Joshua Miller (D-Dist. 28, Cranston, Providence), seeks to additionally ban single-use polystyrene food containers.
Senate Majority Leader Michael McCaffrey (D-Dist. 29, Warwick) has also introduced a bill that would prohibit dining establishments from providing patrons with plastic straws unless a customer makes a specific request.
All three measures were heard before the Senate Committee on Environment and Agriculture earlier this month and held for further study. The Rhode Island Hospitality Association has expressed support for statewide action on the issue of plastic bags.
During the Ordinance Committee’s meeting, Stephen Boyle, president of the Greater Cranston Chamber of Commerce, acknowledged that banning single-use plastic bags is “a movement where the horse is out of the barn.” He spoke, however, on behalf of businesses that have concerns with such measures.
“I've got to play Scrooge a little bit … There is a diverse opinion on this legislation,” he said.
Boyle said many businesses are worried about utilizing their existing inventory of plastic bags. Restaurants in particular, he said, operate on a “very, very small margin,” and a change in the rules governing plastic bags could create costs that would be difficult for such businesses to absorb.
“I worry about the small businesses that can’t flip things over as quick as the bigger corporations,” he said, suggesting providing an allowance – as is included in Ruggerio’s bill – for businesses to charge a small fee for paper bags.
As constituted, the ordinance amendment would prohibit businesses from providing single-use plastic bags – or “plastic carryout bags,” as they are dubbed – to customers at the point of a sales transaction, for a fee or otherwise. Reusable bags or recyclable paper bags would be allowed.
The ordinance defines as “reusable bag” as being “specifically designed and manufactured for multiple reuse” and “made primarily of cloth or other unwoven textile or durable plastic.” Recyclable paper bags are defined as those that are fully recyclable and made using at least 40 percent recycled material.
Exemptions are provided for “double-opening” plastic bags, such as those used to protect dry cleaned items during transport, and for “plastic barrier” bags, such as those used to transport fruits and vegetables, fresh or frozen meat, baked goods, flowers and plants, hardware items or newspapers.
Members of the public who spoke during the March 14 meeting were overwhelmingly in favor of the bag ban.
“I'm really, really happy to hear that this is being sponsored … The time is now. We really need to do this,” Lakeland Road resident Suzanne Arena said.
Florida Avenue resident Joe Agresti said he had initially been “totally against” the bag ban, but that learning of the difficulties plastic bags create at the Rhode Island Resource Recovery Corp.’s recycling center changed his stance.
“It irritated me from an efficiency standpoint,” he said.
Louis Petrucci, an East View Avenue resident and former City Council candidate, said similar bag bans have worked in the communities such as Barrington and South Kingstown.
“I’ve seen [plastic bags] windblown. I’ve seen plastic bags in trees outside of my house. So, they are a big issue,” he said.
He added, “This is a small step, obviously … But this is something we should do.”
Owl Court resident Sean Gately agreed with the intent of removing plastic bags from the environment, calling them a “pernicious piece of litter.”
He added: “But a word of caution … If you’re going to pass an ordinance like this, you have a responsibility to educate the public as part of that process.”
Hall Place resident Tom Wojick said the ordinance provides Cranston with “an opportunity to be a leader.”
“I think we desperately need some projects that can bring people together … I think it’s an opportunity for Cranston to shine,” he said.
“I think it’s a brave move to do it,” Carrie Ann Drive resident James Prince said of the bag ban. “Will it solve the problem worldwide? Of course not. But will it help to mitigate it and lessen it, ultimately, if other people follow suit? I think it’s time.”
Comments from council members were also largely positive.
“I really believe that … it’s our duty to protect our coastal wildlife, our coastal environment,” Vargas said.
She added, “I’m not trying to be anti-business whatsoever, but I have Narragansett Bay in my backyard, and I have the Pawtuxet River in my backyard.”
Hopkins said he sought out “a lot of different perspectives” and conducted extensive research on the issue. While he said he went “back and forth” – and that his “biggest concern is always the increased cost to a consumer” – he has come to believe enacting the bag ban is the correct course of action for the city.
“The ecological concern was also in mind, too … I'm going to be supporting this,” he said.
Paplauskas spoke of the bag ban in personal terms.
“The genesis for this, for me, was the first time I went fishing with my son on Meshanticut Lake. We caught more bags than we did fish,” he said. “Maybe we’re bad fishermen, but to me, we shouldn’t have caught more bags than we did fish.”
He added, “I understand that we’re never going to get rid of plastic. It’s always going to be there. But I think in Cranston, if we can do our small step to lead the way, especially with Rhode Island being the Ocean State, I think it’s the right step in the right direction.”
Favicchio said he agrees with the intent of the bag ban, although he said the perception of “selective enforcement” on the part of the city is a potential hazard. Like Brady, he said he still harbors “reservations.”
While he ultimately voted to send the ordinance to the full council, Favicchio also suggested an alternative approach.
“I think a simple solution would be just to charge $2 a bag if you want plastic, and have the paper bags free,” he said. “That would make it very easy, because I think there’s so many cheap people in this country, that they would not want to pay the extra money for a plastic bag.”